Drowning by numbers

18th May 2001 at 01:00
STATISTICS FOR SCHOOL MANAGERS. By Ian Schagen. Courseware Publications pound;19.95. MONITORING AND EVALUATION FOR SCHOOL IMPROVEMENT. By Mazda Jenkin, Jeff Jones and Sue Lord. Heinemann pound;27.99 (TES pound;24.99). MONITORING, ASSESSMENT, RECORDING, REPORTING AND ACCOUNTABILITY: Meeting the Standards. By Rita Headington. David Fulton, pound;14 (TES pound;13).

Is it a good school? Do children make progress? Are staff efficient and effective? Most heads and teachers could answer "yes" to these questions, but saying, "Take my word for it, I'm a teacher" no longer cuts the mustard. Now, schools must provide proof that would make Pythagoras and Euclid gasp with envy.

Reassurance and school management are increasingly evidence-driven, with the most weight given to numerical evidence - numbers don't lie, do they? They are precise and have a solid feel. Graphs have sharp lines and there are no qualifiers, no ifs, buts and maybes.

Here are three much-needed attempts to help teachers master the essential skills of gathering data, making sense of it and using it to effect worthwhile change.

Schools may be hard up, short of teachers, or even pupils, but what they are not short of is statistics. PANDA and PICSI and the Autumn Package are crammed with the efforts of DfEE number-crunchers and local authorities to add to the snowstorm of data. Their conclusions have a huge impact on judgments made about schools. Some of the data received is straightforward, but much of it is brain-numbingly complex.

Ian Schagen provides a no-nonsense guide to the mysteries of educational statistics. This is a grit-your-teeth-and-sit-up-straight book that demands and deserves your full attention. The subject is not easy to master, but those who have time and aptitude to become skilled in this area will find the rigour of the work rewarding, while those disinclined toward numbers will also find much to hold their attention. The author is not as sharply critical as Tony Neal is in his excellent Managing Value Added (Secondary Heads Association, pound;8.50, reviewed in Friday magazine, March 2), but he raises challenging questions about how Whitehall and Ofsted manipulate data. He makes it very clear that statistics can tell us what has happened - for example, girls perform better than boys in English tests at the end of key stage 2 - but also shows how they do not account for how or why it has happened. The ifs, buts and maybes are never far away. Schagen's book not only deserves a place in the staff library butalso deserves to be read.

What Heinz did for tinned food, Mazda Jenkin, Jeff Jones and Sue Lord do for checklists and school management. Monitoring and Evaluation for School Improvement is based on 35 varieties of checklist, not 57, but each is nicely packaged and ready for use. The book falls broadly into three sections: monitoring and evaluation for school improvement; planning for whole-school monitoring and evaluation; and the role of subject leaders and pastoral leaders.

It is based on the secondary sector, but the ideas are also useful for other phases. In particular, the authors have in mind schools that face inspection. Those looking to produce reams of evidence of management diligence need look no further; there is plenty here to mesmerise the nosiest inspector.

Particularly valuable is the section on the role of subject leaders in monitoring. The new performance management requirements call for a rigorous approach to classroom observation, and authors offer useful ideas on developing consistent systems.

This book is not good news for those determined to reduce bureaucracy. The template called, "Administrative tasks and calendar items impacting on the meetings schedule" topples over the edge of sanity, but others are more useful.

Rita Headington's book targets trainee and newly qualified teachers, and aims to help them to meet the national standards in the five areas needed to reach Qualified Teacher Status. The book is up-to-date and thoughtful but, for its intended audience, it has too much background and technical information.

Most NQTs and trainees need easy access to manageable and robust systems to keep them afloat for at least another day. There are not enough examples here of the "do this" or "do that" variety. There are too few templates and those that do appear seem like an afterthought. Even the dimmest student I've suffered would have been able to construct a mark sheet, unaided, as good as the one offered here.

Those who stand to gain most from this book are lecturers in initial teacher training and possibly NQTs' school mentors. These readers will find the background details invaluable and the frequent activities lists full of ideas for generating discussion. They will be more comfortable with the academic style, pace and detail that frequently made me impatient in my search for the bright ideas.

Mike Sullivan

The reviewer is an education and a former primary headteacher based in the West Midlands

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